Zola (2021)

As a terminally online movie nerd who has been relying on borrowed public-library DVDs instead of theatrical distribution to keep up with new releases all pandemic, it’s a minor miracle when I can enter a movie unbiased & unspoiled.  By the time I get to most buzzy releases, I’ve already heard every possible take on its faults & merits, with plenty of plot & stylistic details filled in as supporting evidence.  I was fortunate, then, to watch Janicza Bravo’s Zola without any clear roadmap to where it was headed.  As it was adapted from one of the most notorious Twitter threads of all time (with the co-writing help of its real-life subject & Tweeter, @zolamoon), I should likely be embarrassed that I had no idea where the film’s road-trip-to-Hell story would lead me, but instead I’m grateful.  While the hype around @zolamoon’s tweets was sensational, the conversation surrounding their movie adaptation has been much more subdued, which means the film-obsessed corners of the internet where I lurk left me mostly blind to where it was going.  All I really knew is that Zola lived to tweet about the journey, which did little to lighten the tension of the distinctly Floridian nightmare she survived.

This is not the first movie I’ve seen that was directly adapted from a series of tweets.  2013’s Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. is a Thai coming-of-age drama adapted from 410 consecutive tweets on an anonymous teen girl’s Twitter account, credited to @marylonely.  It’s a playfully experimental work that allows the jarring tonal shifts of reading a Twitter feed from bottom-to-top to dictate its moment-to-moment whims.  Zola is the darksided mirrorworld version of that much lighter, kinder film – finding a chaotic terror & humor in life’s sequential randomness.  By definition, Zola is a purely episodic journey, following each “And then this happened, and then this happened” anecdote of its online source material like the twisty tracks on a rollercoaster – with no hopes of the deranged carnies in charge letting you off.  A part-time waitress & dancer in Detroit, Zola is seduced into a road trip to working a few Florida strip clubs with the promise of easy money & friendship.  The second she becomes a backseat passenger in her obnoxious, shady “friend’s” SUV, she realizes she’s in the hands of unhinged strangers with no choice but to see the journey through, hoping they return her to Detroit in one piece.  Each new strip club & hotel room she’s dragged through along the way springs horrific funhouses surprises at her, and she does her best to remain visibly calm, unphased by their sinister absurdism.  It was the scariest movie experience I had in the entirety of October, when I was mostly watching movies about supernatural ghouls & goblins.

Speaking of funhouses, Janicza Bravo has fun adding a layer of fairy tale artifice to this darkly funny nightmare, setting its pre-strip show dress-up sequences in a fantastic mirror realm scored by angelic harp strings.  We’re swept off our feet by Zola’s new, chaotic stripper friend right alongside her, intoxicated by the promise of wealth & adventure.  There’s a music video sheen to the pop art setting & fast-fashion costuming that can put you under the Wicked Stephanie’s spell if you’re not careful.  Once that spell is broken, you’re forever tied to her, cursed to stare at blank hotel room walls while listening to her turn tricks you didn’t consent to witnessing in an endless parade of gnarled Floridian dicks.  Mica Levi’s usual tension-generator scoring is made even more upsettingly arrhythmic with the intrusion of gum-chewing & Twitter notifications, making sure the vibes remain just as poisonous as they are sickly sweet.  The movie is only 85 minutes long, including its end credits, but by the time it’s over you feel as if you’ve been trapped in its hellish mirrorworld for a thousand eternities – in desperate need of a scalding-hot shower. 

I’m not sure why Zola was so breezily discussed & forgotten among online movie nerds when it was released this summer.  Maybe its social media source material or its episodic nature made it appear unsubstantial by default.  Maybe its online discourse cycle had already exhausted itself before the movie was even announced, back when the original Twitter thread was a must-read.  Whatever the reason, I’m grateful that I got to engage with the movie as a fresh, volatile cultural object months after its initial run – a rare treat these days.

-Brandon Ledet

Monos (2019)

There’s a mystery at the core of Monos that has nothing to do with plot reveals or concealed identities among its characters. The mystery is mostly a matter of getting your bearings. What’s clear is that we’re spending a couple tense hours in the Amazon rainforest with a teenage militia as they struggle to maintain control over a political hostage and a sustenance-providing milk cow. The details surrounding that circumstance are continually disorienting as the whos, whys, and whens of the premise are kept deliberately vague. The temporal setting could range from thirty years in the past to thirty years into the apocalyptic future, limited only by the teen soldiers’ codenames being inspired by 80s pop culture references like Rambo & Smurf. The political ideology of The Organization that commands this baby-faced militia is never vocalized, hinted at only by the fact that the mostly POC youth are holding an adult white woman (the consistently wonderful Julianne Nicholson) hostage at gunpoint. The film doesn’t waste any time establishing the rules of the world that surround this violent, jungle-set microcosm. Instead, it chooses to convey only the unrelenting tension & brutality that defines the daily life of this isolated tentacle of a much larger, undefined political resistance. It’s maddening – purposefully so.

The reason Monos gets away with this stubborn refusal to establish a solid contextual foundation for its audience is that the sights, sounds, and performances that flood the screen are consistently, impressively intense. We’re estranged in a remote, lush jungle Where The Wild Things Go Too Far. The mountainside cliffs open to cloud formations the size of metropolises; the river rapids seemingly threaten to crush the (mostly unknown) teenage actors before our eyes. As the kids devolve from disciplined soldiers to wild animals without the watchful eye of an authority figure, they become a punishing force of Nature themselves. What starts as a jubilant celebration of freedom & autonomy—with recreational mushroom trips, fireside cunnilingus, and history’s most irresponsible gunplay—inevitably erupts into cruel, purposeless violence. They begin the film waging war on an outside, unseen enemy but eventually only wage war among themselves, almost as if they were rowdy children with guns. This constant, unrelenting mayhem is chillingly scored by Mica Levi in what very well may be her finest work to date (in film at least; I’m still a huge fan of her pop album Jewellery). The downward trajectory of Monos is from barely contained chaos to total, irrevocable chaos, which is more of a recognizable distinction than you might expect.

A lot of critical coverage of this film has understandably compared it to works like Apocalypse Now & Lord of the Flies, but to me it felt more like Nocturama of the Jungle. The clinically precise way these violently horny, prankish children (whose sexuality is just as fluid as their morals) are framed makes for a wonderfully rewarding contrast between form & content. Like in Nocturama, their innocent naivete and stylish teenage cool are somehow never lost even when they’re at their most despicably violent, even when we’re unclear what all this mayhem is meant to accomplish. Ultimately, though, I think I preferred the structure of Nocturama much better to Monos’s, as that film’s own disorienting mystery shifts & mutates in monumental ways – so that its two warring halves almost feel like entirely separate films. By contrast, Monos fully commits to one constant, unwavering tone from start to finish; we never know exactly what’s going to happen next, but we do know how each upcoming event is going to feel. The filmmaking craft & mountainsize ambition of this picture is consistently impressive from scene to scene, but its commitment to a single tonal effect—tense descent into disorder & mayhem—makes it frustrating to emotionally connect with, even after you get past the mystery of its context & purpose.

-Brandon Ledet